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Bay Area Mountain Lion Stories

The creation of a book requires a lot of writing, as well as pruning. Sometimes those tossed passages are difficult to let go of. As I prepare to give several talks around the Bay Area, I thought I’d offer a few prime pieces from Ghostwalker that I hated to cut. This one includes a story told to me by a friend who lives in Marin County.

Home range sizes were still perplexing me. In my valley next to Yellowstone Park, deer and elk move elevationally winter and summer, with predators following. Fawns and calves born in the spring are taken advantage of by cougars, as well as bears and wolves. As the seasons progress, although young fawns and calves are too swift for bears, cougars easily prey on them. Also, such small prey can be eaten in one sitting, helping to avoid kleptoparasitism. As the game follows the green-up in the high country, they disperse, making for larger cougar home range sizes.

In the Bay Area, excellent forage and warm weather had deer staying put. Cougars didn’t have to travel. Looking at Rick Hopkins study of the Diablo Range, an average home range for a male was around 60 square miles. The Santa Cruz study was documenting similar male home range sizes. Marin County habitat is a mix of what’s found in the Mt. Hamilton and Santa Cruz Mountains—conifer forest mix, and large swaths of oak/woodlands. I can testify that the deer population is large and healthy, along with feral cats, raccoons, opossums and other small prey. I spent a lot of time as a landscape designer thinking about deer, rodent, and raccoon proof strategies for homeowners.

Zara McDonald_Photo_preview

Researcher Zara McDonald with cougar kitten. McDonald heads up the Bay Area Puma Project

I asked the same question to Bay Area Puma Project biologist Courtney Coons and she approached it from a different angle. “I think it’s quite disturbing. Why is it that just in this little strip [of the South peninsula], where the human population is quite dense, we see a ton of pumas, maybe six or seven? And we’ve had females with kittens in the south peninsula too. While maybe three males, at most, and no females with kittens, in the North Bay. I think that’s something we need to figure out.”

What makes for good habitat? While Marin has some of the best connected pristine habitat in the Bay Area, pumas are just not using it much. Are there too many people biking and hiking as the playground for San Francisco weekend warriors? Or, an alternative idea Courtney has, is that corridors in the south bay are easier to spot, while corridors from Marin to Sonoma are just not easily found. Using Google Earth, Courtney shows me large stretches of ranchlands, land with no cover that cougars would have to cross to disperse. Although young dispersers don’t know where they are headed, they do know the difference between cover and no cover. Coon says “we have two criteria for good lion habitat: deer and cover.”

Map of Bay Area

Unlike Los Angeles, the Bay Area has a lot of potential for lion “meet and greet” corridors. That is what researchers are exploring.

Although researchers are loathed to use undocumented ‘sightings’ as evidence of cougars, over the years there have been many such reports in Marin before camera work was taking place. I lived in Lucas Valley for almost twenty years. The valley corridor (no relation to George Lucas although his Skywalker Ranch is located farther up the valley) and surrounding hillsides are oak woodland habitat. As one travels west up the valley, the fog belt begins and with it the Redwoods and douglas fir forest. Most of the surrounding hills are protected open space, while the more populated basin, a mix of housing developments, single homes, ranches, and state park, feeds all the way to Point Reyes Station and Nicasio, including north to Petaluma. Continuing west to the ocean is the large swath of Point Reyes National Seashore. Central Marin consists of hills and valleys—people live in the valleys while the hills are mostly protected. It’s a nightmare for cell service.

Lucas Valley was named after the rancher that owned these lands. In the 1960s he sold to developers who divvied up the lowlands, while a farsighted group of homeowners raised enough funds to purchase the surrounding hillsides. Once purchased, they gave it to the county Open Space District to manage. A perennial stream, named Miller Creek, runs through the valley. When I lived there, I heard tales of trout runs and arrowheads in the 1950s. When nearby Miller Creek Middle School was being built, a Miwok Indian camp was unearthed along with a large shell midden. The archaeologists put up a chain-link fence to protect it from school kids and pot-diggers. Now it’s a large lump of weedy dirt, waiting for later exploration, sitting beside basketball hoops. When new buildings were going up at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, the crews uncovered Indian burial sites. Obviously, this was a favored valley for thousands of years.

The local elementary school is also adjacent to Miller Creek. During the dry season thirsty deer come to drink and the predators follow. It was at this time of year, during the mid-90s when I lived there, that my neighbors saw cougars. Cougar alerts for the school were commonplace. A neighbor looked out the kitchen window and in the atrium, was a large cougar. The cat entered from the open roof, found what must have looked to him like a hole leading to a sunny cave, so he jumped in. The owner called the district office, who tranquilized and moved the cat. During the time I lived in the valley, I probably heard about five reliable reports from friends who spotted cougars. Possibly many of those sightings were the same cat.

My friend Arjun Khalsa told me a story that took place in 2009. Arjun lives in a typical housing development at the mouth of Lucas Valley. A maze of streets and middle-class single-family homes, many of the houses, including his, abut protected hills of grassland dotted with mature oaks. An avid birder and naturalist, Arjun was walking the hills behind his house on a daily basis with binoculars and a tape recorder, observing multiple generations of white-shouldered kites. On one of these walks, Arjun ran into two women who told him about several long-tailed weasels occupying one of the bluffs. Since the hill was along Arjun’s path, he inspected it more closely, yet saw nothing unusual within and around the thick grasses.

One morning on his walk while looking for the birds, on the hill above is a large cat, staring at Arjun and his dog, Merlin. By comparing the size of the cat to Merlin’s sixty-pound frame, Arjun can tell this cat is at least one and a half the weight of Merlin, and several inches taller. “It’s kind of a charged moment”, Arjun tells me, as “the cat turns around and saunters away from me, exposing very large pads on the bottom of its hind feet, and a big sweeping tail slowly going back and forth, left to right, in a fluid, confidant slow motion that was almost hypnotizing as he walked away.”

Cougar

Lion in east Bay

Through his binoculars, Arjun watched the big cat head directly for the same hill that the women told him weasels lived on. He followed the cat, staying far behind, yet all the while watching through binoculars, until the cat turns and stares directly at him. At that point Arjun returns home, calls the ranger, describes what he saw and the ranger verifies he saw a lion.

The following day Arjun heads back to the bluff where the cat had disappeared. He’s been there many times before, but today was unique, for the entire hill, all of the soft dirt and grass within a patch of fifteen or twenty feet, was ripped up. And scattered over the area was brown fur, weasel fur. With the grass and the dirt exposed, Arjun could see little tunnels all around.  At that moment, says Arjun, “it was absolutely clear to me that this lion had been looking back at me and saying ‘this is my dinner dude, and you are staying away from here.’”

Here is a link to all my presentation in January around the Bay Area. The first of many will be held at the REI in the Marina. Hope to see you at one of my events!

Leslie Sleepy lion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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